Simon Godwin is poised to take the reins of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, but the presence of Michael Kahn hangs over it like a mist. If you have any question, you should see the free-for-all Hamlet now at Sidney Harman Hall.
Craig Baldwin is the director, but what you see adheres so closely to Kahn’s original concept that you may think you’ve blundered into a time machine and are in the winter of 2018 again. Michael Urie as Hamlet is a little less manic than he was last time, and Alan Cox is a little less charismatic as Claudius (due, perhaps, to a scratchy throat on the night I was there) but this production features a mad Hamlet, for whom the wind blows north-north-west all the time.
The text justifies this interpretation (among others). Consider: The ghost of Hamlet’s beloved father, the former King, appears to Hamlet, and informs the young Prince that his Uncle Claudius killed the King to usurp his throne and his marriage-bed. The ghost instructs Hamlet to revenge him. How does Hamlet react? He insults his girlfriend, he insults his girlfriend’s father, he stages a play, he considers killing Claudius when he has the chance but does not, he yells at his mother, he kills the wrong guy, he goes to England and is captured by pirates, he gets away and inexplicably agrees to fight a duel with his ex-girlfriend’s brother, and gets into a conflagration where (spoiler alert) everybody dies. Not exactly the hero’s journey, is it?
Hamlet is unique in that, though he is the protagonist, Hamlet initiates almost none of the action. The play’s real force is Claudius. Having obtained his Kingship, Claudius moves ruthlessly to consolidate it, outflanking Fortinbras (Krystal Lucas), noticing Hamlet’s erratic behavior early and conspiring with Polonius (Robert Joy), the palace fixer, to diagnose it correctly, bringing in Hamlet’s college chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Tim Nicolai and Kelsey Rainwater), to get the answers Hamlet won’t give Claudius, exiling Hamlet to England and, when that doesn’t work, arranging for Hamlet to fight Laertes (Paul Deo, Jr.) in a duel which Claudius fixes to be Hamlet’s doom. Hamlet’s sole initiative is to stage a play, the purpose of which is to determine, by Claudius’ reaction, whether Claudius did indeed kill Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s ploy succeeds, but he is unable to capitalize on the information he obtains from it. Hamlet reminds us of the recurring refrain in Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan: he is a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.
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The Kahn/Baldwin version gives Claudius a few extra initiatives to reinforce this uniqueness. In the text, after killing Polonius and hiding his body, Hamlet gives a series of wiseacre responses to Claudius, who seeks to know where to find his dead minion. In this production, Hamlet gives these smart-aleck answers while strapped in a chair, and Claudius pounds him in the gut with his fist after each response. This starkly underscores the fact that Hamlet’s only weapon is his fierce, contemptuous attitude. (The production adds another wordless chore for Claudius to perform which provides a shocking ending to the first Act. I won’t tell you what it is).
The Urie Hamlet is not terribly likeable, and this production underscores Hamlet’s unlikeability in a dozen subtle ways. I’ll cite just one: when the traveling troupe of players comes to Elsinore, they rehearse the play they will present to the Royal Court. Hamlet — an extremely interested party, given the uses to which he will put this production — sits and watches. When one of the actors performs to his dissatisfaction, Hamlet gets up and corrects him, describing, in some detail, how the part should be played.
Traditionally, the actor is terrible, hamming the lines up intolerably, so that when Hamlet intervenes it is a blessing. In this production, though, the actor (Chris Genebach) is making a legitimate actorly choice. When Hamlet objects, the actor makes another, equally legitimate choice. When Hamlet objects to that, you realize that in addition to his other vices, this Hamlet is a control freak, and it’s easy to see how the community elders who selected Claudius rather than Hamlet to succeed his dead father made their choice.
The effect is to distance the audience from Hamlet’s dilemma, so that, without a rooting interest, we can detach ourselves from the action to appreciate the beauty of the play’s language and construction. (Another Kahn production of the play, with Jeffrey Carlson in the title role, emphasized Hamlet’s youth and callowness, and you were terrified for him throughout). That does make Hamlet a bit of a museum piece, but my God! What a museum! There are perhaps two dozen iconic lines, the recitation of which invariably gets an audience reaction. Here, watching them spoken in context, we see their beauty and insight magnified by the lines around them, and the situation which prompts their utterance.
The old gang is largely back. In addition to Urie and Cox, Joy and Rainwater, we have Madeleine Potter as a tough-as-nails Gertrude, Federico Rodriguez as Hamlet’s sensible friend Horatio, Keith Baxter as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the Player King and, memorably, the gravedigger, and the excellent Gregory Wooddell as Claudius’ body man, Orsic. One actor new to the cast is Ayana Workman as Ophelia, and the change in actors works a subtle change in the play.
Shakespeare Theatre’s Free-for-All Hamlet closes July 21, 2019.
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Workman is an extremely youthful-looking actor, and you could be forgiven from thinking that Ophelia is about fifteen (Workman is, in fact, a college graduate with impressive theatrical credentials). With the actor who played Ophelia in the 2018 production you got the impression that Ophelia loved Hamlet but Hamlet, incapable of mature love, looked to her as sort of a mother figure. Here, Ophelia is a little flattered but largely bewildered by Hamlet’s attentions, and absolutely flummoxed by his behavior after his encounter with his father’s ghost. To Hamlet in this production, Ophelia seems like a trifle, and it is his pleasure to torture her with his mood swings as a way of getting to her father and, ultimately, his uncle.
We also have the renewed pleasure of John Coyne’s scenic design, which sets this modern-dress production in a high-security building, the center of a high-security State. It is full of unexpected modern touches; when, for example, Marcellus (Lucas) enters the security room at the play’s outset, she brings Starbucks for everybody. Jess Goldstein’s costumes get exactly what rich people wear; Orsic’s suits, for example, look like they could finance an entire production of Hamlet at a less financially-endowed theater entirely by themselves.
There have, of course, been many tributes to Kahn since he announced his pending retirement. Think of this Hamlet as one of the more memorable ones. Shakespeare, in this amazing rocket ship of a play, gave other artists the opportunity to create yet more interpretive art. Kahn, in this magnificent production, got all of it. We’ll miss him.
Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, directed by Craig Baldwin, assisted by Charlie Marie McGrath . Featuring Michael Urie, Alan Cox, Madeleine Potter, Keith Baxter, Robert Joy, Ayana Workman, Paul Deo, Jr., Federico Rodriguez, Tim Nicolai, Kelsey Rainwater, David Bryan Jackson, Lise Bruneau (who also served as Fight Captain), Chris Genebach, Krystal Lucas, Gregory Wooddell, Michael Haller, Omar D. Cruz, Grace Brockway, Megan Huynh, Joe Mucciolo, Keanu Ross-Cabrera, and Jeff Allen Young . Scenic designer: John Coyne . Costume designer: Jess Goldstein . Lighting designer: Yi Zhao . Lighting Adapter: Kelly Rudolph . Sound Designer: Broken Chord, who also provided original music . Projections and video designer: Patrick W. Lord . Fight choreographer: David Leong . Dramaturg: Drew Lichtenberg . Voiced and text coach: Lisa Beley . Production stage manager: Joseph Smelser, assisted by Rebecca Shipman (Christopher Michael Borg will take over as ASM after July 17) . Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.